Two very sweet birdwatching programmes on Radio 4 last week: one about hen harriers, the other, ospreys. Reading the Air, presented by naturalist Chris Yates, was a delight, packed with sound (tinkling water, crunching footsteps, tea pouring from a metal container, ash trees bashing into each other as the wind rose), plus the babbling brook of Yates’s fluid, evocative chat. Producers Dan Shepherd and Phil Smith mic-ed Yates up so intimately it was as though we had a direct line into his clever brain; his descriptions of harriers were nothing less than poetry. “It’s almost like smoke, the way it flies,” he said. The first time he saw a male harrier “it appeared like vapour, the very vivid silver of the underside… the wingtips like black mittens”.
You have to be able to read the air, says Yates, if you want to work out when and where a harrier will come. He compared it to reading water, as he used to do when he went fishing, his hobby until he reached his 60s. Now he’s in his 70s, Yates has put aside his rod and line and follows birds instead. His voice and enthusiasm are of someone less than half his age. Lovely background music, too, and producer Smith was one of the musicians.
The Flight of the Ospreys, a 10-part series, was another gorgeous listen, though very different. Where Reading the Air was like a sound poem, this was more briskly informational, with a scientific base. Presenter Emily Knight delivered a quite astonishing story, in just 15 minutes: the tale of biologist and conservationist Sacha Dench, who used a paraglider, with an engine and propeller strapped to her back, to get close to her bird subjects, until she and another conservationist, Dan Burton, crashed midair. They fell to earth. Burton died, Dench was badly hurt. But she wanted to continue her research project, tracking the migration of ospreys. No more flying machines, but we will go with Dench, flying along with the ospreys, from the Cairngorms to Ghana, over the next few weeks.
And here’s another nature-centred tale, though it’s the humans who dominate. The Paddlefish Caviar Heist is a weird one: a true-crime yarn that takes place in remote Missouri countryside and involves the eggs of paddlefish. Paddlefish are enormous, un-pretty, dinosaur-type fish. They are a protected species and those who wish to catch them during the six-week season are only allowed to take out two fish a day. But a few years ago, poachers started fishing them illegally, killing hundreds of fish in search of their eggs. Why? There was a caviar shortage in Russia and so fake caviar (the eggs of fish other than sturgeon) was required and sold for vast profit.
That’s it, really. That’s the story. But Imperative and Vespucci, which have a great niche in long-form storytelling, have commissioned food writer Helen Hollyman to investigate the crime. She’s diligent, but this is not a grabby tale and there’s too much time spent establishing what’s gone on and not enough chasing down whatever story there is to be chased. I listened to two episodes that could easily have been condensed into one. Perhaps things will get spicier if we get to meet a few Russian caviar-munching gangsters along the way.
Another angle (ho ho) to this fish-based tale is that it’s yet another example of humans exploiting the planet’s hard-earned natural resources for quick bucks. For more of this, you could try Greta Thunberg’s new tome The Climate Book, for which she commissioned various experts for their take on the climate disaster. Last week, Radio 4 adapted it for Book of the Week, with Thunberg herself introducing each apocalyptic section, as calm and reasonable as ever. Nevertheless, I had to take a break after two episodes, to catch my breath and still my panic.
The essays were wide-ranging, from the chemical basis of life on Earth (essentially, photosynthesis keeps everything alive and we’re messing with that) to the story of a Central American farmer forced to cross illegally into the US to look for work because his crops keep failing. Thunberg wondered, in the final episode, whether we could solve the crisis through individual action. The answer is no. “Every year,” she says, “an estimated 8m tons of plastic waste are dumped into our oceans… Every minute, we subsidise the production and burning of coal, oil and gas [with] $11m.” Statistics to make you faint. If we don’t do something, there will be no harriers, no ospreys to bring delight, no poor paddlefish to kill for sport. Not even us and our useless money.